Interview: The Truth About Those 22 Illegal Arab Houses
Plans to clean up and develop the Gan Hamelech, the King's Garden, area outside the Old City of Jerusalem – also known as Al Bustan - will continue without interruption, despite ongoing rioting by Arabs opposed to the development, says Edna Freidman, who holds the Israeli Heritage portfolio in the Jerusalem Municipality. She is a graduate of the scholastically acclaimed Horev Ulpena in Jerusalem, holds an M.A. degree in Chemistry from Hebrew University and is a member of the Bayit Hayehudi (formerly NRP) party and member of Emunah, the Religious National Women's Organization.
“Five years from now we expect the neighborhood to look much different, and we believe all residents of Jerusalem – including those living in the area slated for renewal – as well as all Israelis, will benefit,” she says.
For centuries, including under Ottoman, British and Jordanian rule, the Gan Hamelech compound was open, forested space – preserved by the ruling powers for its historic and archaeological value. According to historians, many of the most important events in the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, took place in this area; Jewish tradition says that the Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) was written by King Solomon in the garden that once grew there.
Beginning in 1967, however, Arab squatters began building illegal structures in the compound, and today there are some 120 buildings there. It is these illegally built squats that are at the heart of the controversy in the Silwan neighborhood today, as demonstrators riot against Israel's intentions to clear the site of the illegally built structures, and to proceed with development of the Gan Hamelech project, which will restored as a garden, with new housing and commercial facilities to be built.
When completed, the western part of Gan Hamelech will be restored to its historical condition. The Gihon Spring will once again flow along the Kidron Valley as in Biblical times, the orchards will be replanted, and a blooming garden will be grown, which would be open to both visitors and the neighborhood residents. An area adjacent to the park will be developed for commerce, restaurants and tourism, restaurants, artists' workshops, souvenir and local art shops, etc., similar to the Mamilla project opposite the Jaffa Gate..
It's an ambitious project, but one that everyone can live with, says Friedman. “This is not about discrimination against Arabs, but I believe that the law must be enforced for everyone. If the authorities can move against Beit Yehonatan, a Jewish-owned building n the neighborhood, on the grounds that it is too tall and that zoning laws prohibit a multi-story building, certainly the laws have to be enforced against Arabs who built homes illegally.” Friedman understands the desire of the residents to stay near family, and she is sure fair arrangements will be made for them in the new development.. Whether there are issues of difficulties in getting building permits in general is besides the point, she says, The high costs of apartments in Jerusalem do not allow any but the most affluent Jerusalem Jews to buy their children homes in the city
In addition, says Friedman, one of the reasons the city requires building licenses for construction is to ensure minimum safety standards. “It's very possible that the structures at this site are unsafe,” she says, “and that's another reason to pull them down.” Instead, the city will offer the residents legal, safe housing. “Believe me, our main goal is to serve all residents.” While Friedman says she cannot comment on details of the plan, she says that the municipality can be trusted on this issue. “From what I know about municipal policies and from the way the city deals with problems like this, I am sure the issues can and will be resolved in a positive manner for the residents and the city,” Friedman says.
Haven't municipal officials tried to communicate this to the protesters? They have, Friedman says, but communication has been difficult because of political factors. “I haven't spoken to the residents directly, but based on my experience, it would appear that the rioting is connected to internal Palestinian politics. In the course of my work I come into contact with many Arabs, both in Israel and in the PA, and I find that the vast majority of them want to be left alone to pursue their lives. There is a major disconnect between the average Arab family man and woman and their leaders, to say the least,” says Friedman. “The leaders are much more radical than their constituents.”